Why is the U.S. killing of Soleimani significant?
General Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, an external unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose primary activities were outside Iran’s borders. He was particularly adept at creating militias manned by recruits from across the Middle East and South Asia. The model was Hezbollah in Lebanon, where in the early 1980s Iran organized the local Shiite community and created a lethal terrorist organization that would commit acts of violence on its behalf. This policy had two major advantages. First, it gave Iran a unique ability to assert its influence over disorderly politics in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria while maintaining a kind of plausible deniability. Second, it allowed Iran to wage through proxies a campaign of violence responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops during the civil war in Iraq.
How is Iran likely to retaliate?
The United States needs to be cautious and, as a prelude to this attack, should have fortified its diplomatic and military outposts throughout the region in anticipation of Iran-backed reprisals. However, the Islamic Republic is a battered regime, beset by protests at home and abroad. Since President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions, Iran’s economy has essentially collapsed. In November, Iran faced the most serious protests since the revolution. In both Iraq and Lebanon, Shias are protesting Iran’s involvement in their national affairs. In sum, Iran is not in a position to go to war with the United States, and is likely not capable of mounting effective asymmetric attacks on U.S. positions.
Could the killing further destabilize Iraq and other places where Soleimani was active in the region, such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen?
Iran’s position in all those countries was already precarious. The regime could ill afford the vast imperial project that it undertook since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is struggling to meet its domestic budgetary needs and has been reducing its subsidies to its militias. The assassination of Soleimani is unlikely to reverse any of those trends.
What steps should U.S. officials take next toward Iran? Is a diplomatic path effectively gone?
It is hard to see a diplomatic path moving forward. The Islamic Republic is likely to sustain its “no war, no peace” strategy that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in mid-2018.
Thus, the task for the Trump administration is to further weaken Iran. Its successes on that front are noteworthy: It has already cratered Iran’s economy and now it has removed from the scene one of its famed commanders. Iran is an adversary of the United States and a judicious policy would be to continuously erode the Iranian regime’s power. The Islamic Republic will either return to the negotiating table at some point in a weakened position or collapse altogether.